Like many Westerners, my knowledge of the Muslim world is limited. My only direct experience is of visiting Dubai, where homosexuality is illegal and homophobia is rife. I can't say it's a place I'd revisit in a hurry. Like everyone else, I've the heard the horror stories emanating from Iran and Saudi Arabia. So I must confess that my first thought when faced with a book called Gay Travels in the Muslim World was "Why?". Why travel to places where attitudes towards homosexuality are still stuck in the dark ages? Why pay your pink pounds into enconomies where gay rights aren't recognised? Why risk discrimination and worse in countries where gay men and women are locked up, publicly hanged or flogged to death? Why not go somewhere else instead?
The reailty, of course, is that what we commonly refer to as "the Muslim world" isn't monolithic. As this collection of true-life stories shows, there are many ways to be a Muslim. Editor Michael T Luongo was prompted to put this book together after calling for submissions for an earlier book, Between the Palms, and being surprised at the number of stories involving gay men's travels in the Middle East and experiences with Muslim men who had migrated to other countries. So there's the story of a nice Jewish boy who settles down in Mauritania, West Africa, and enjoys sex with local men, none of whom identifies as gay. There's the man in Bangladesh who takes a tour of the local cruising spots and discovers a world of prostitution and rooms rented for less than a dollar an hour. There's the editor himself in Afghanistan, where he's surprised to learn that, even under the Taliban, gay wedding ceremonies were taking place in Kandahar. And there's the gay soldier's tour of duty in Iraq, and touching encounter with a man he calls "The Gay Iraqi".
Luongo would probably take issue with the idea of a "gay Iraqi". In his introduction, he stresses that "a tremendous difference exists between how homosexuality is expressed in the Western world and the Islamic world... To simplify a very complex issue, in Europe and America and places under Western influence, homosexual desire and acts become the very definition of a person, they create an identity that separates him or her from the rest of society.
In much of the Islamic world, homosexual desire and acts are simply one aspect among others, something people do but not something that defines a person above all other traits". I must say I'm not entirely convinced by this argument. People who identify as gay are not necessarily guilty of separating themselves from the rest of society, any more than people who are Muslim are automatically guilty of separating themselves from those who are not. Many gay people are happily integrated with their heterosexual friends and family, just as many Muslims are integrated with the wider communities in which they live. And in cities like London at least, there are men and women who are both Muslim and openly gay.
Among the most cheering sights at Gay Pride recently were the gay Muslims with a banner proclaiming "Allah Doesn't Make Mistakes". On the other hand, there are large numbers of people in Europe and America who regularly have homosexual sex but do not identify as gay, either because they're genuinely bisexual or, more often, because they're riddled with guilt and have internalised homophobia. The refusal of a gay identity isn't an expression of free choice but a symptom of oppression. I dare say a similar thing occurs in countries more repressive than ours, where Pride marches are outlawed and homosexuality is so taboo that its very existence is denied. It was only a few months ago that Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared to the audience at a university in New York: "In Iran we don't have homosexuals like you do in your country." And maybe they don't. Maybe they have homosexuals who are far too terrified of ever coming out the American way, and who choose to see themselves as "men who have sex with men" because, quite frankly, it's their only chance of survival.
But survive they do, and their tales make illuminating reading. This book hasn't prompted me to change my holiday plans, but it has made me think seriously about what it means to be gay and Muslim. And that, surely, is a step in the right direction.
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